TORONTO -- Tweets criticizing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have shown evidence of some bot-like activity from Twitter accounts that appear to share American right-wing sentiments, prompting concerns that public opinion could be affected by automated online accounts.

Analysis of about 34,000 tweets from approximately 4,896 accounts by researcher Marc Owen Jones revealed that 15 per cent of accounts using the hashtag #TrudeauMustGo between Sept. 3 and 5 were ones that primarily identified with U.S. right-wing politics.

The biographies tied to those accounts made mention of “Make America Great Again” (MAGA), “Keep America Great” (KAG), or the QAnon and #WWG1GWA fringe conspiracy theory movements.

“This community was among the most cohesive on the hashtag, in other words, the thing the accounts most had in common on #TrudeauMustGo was their self-identification with the Trump movement,” Jones, assistant professor of Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, told by email earlier this month from Qatar.

Jones, who has been probing issues of disinformation related to the Brexit, began investigating the hashtag after one of his followers notified him about #TrudeauMustGo.

“I was surprised the figure of Trump supporters was so high and that they were tweeting on Canadian politics. I was also surprised to see many of the same accounts tweeting about Brexit and Iran. To me that is suspicious,” he added.

Jones also found that the U.S. right-wing accounts using the hashtag were generally more active than other accounts on Twitter, showing evidence of spam or bot-like activity.

History of suspicious activity

Use of #TrudeauMustGo dates back as far as 2015, but the hashtag has been gradually picking up steam since June.

In July, the National Observer also reported suspicions of bot-like activity under the hashtag, reporting that it was “driven in part by inauthentic activity including artificial amplification and automation.”

The National Observer linked a spike in activity on the hashtag between Jul. 16 and 17 after Trudeau said “this is not how we do things in Canada” in response to questions about U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweets in which he told four U.S. congresswomen to go back to the countries they came from. 

According to the report, more than two dozen accounts tweeting from the hashtag in that instance had been created less than two days beforehand and approximately 400 accounts contained the term “MAGA” in their profile.

Jones is now working with researchers at Citizen Lab, an internet watchdog group based at the University of Toronto's Munk School, to better understand the scale of the operation.

How does this affect you?

Despite these reports, #TrudeauMustGo and related hashtags such as #TrudeauMustGoToJail and #TrudeauCorruption, are shared by real Twitter users every day as the election campaign ramps up.

Hundreds of those users have tweeted, specifying that they are not bots, but real people who oppose Trudeau and his party’s politics.

But experts warn that any spam or bot-like manipulation can further polarize the electorate and even influence the election.

“There’s no doubt about it; the only question is how much and how do we measure that,” Ben Scott, director of policy and advocacy at Luminate, told CTVNews.caon Tuesday.

“Basically what you are dealing with is the distortion of the public debate.”

Scott led the technology policy advisory group for the Hillary Clinton campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. His work focuses on research and policy analysis related to digital disinformation in democracies.

Speaking to by telephone from London, Scott said Jones’ estimation of the number of bot-like accounts tweeting under the #TrudeauMustGo hashtag is high, noting this has “the potential to disrupt the political debate” in Canada.

He also noted that among hyper-polarized communities, 80 per cent of the sharing, commenting, and retweeting of a particular hashtag happens within a small segment of the population, further polarizing the audience for whichit’s deemed relevant.

“When it happens over and over again it gradually changes your world view and politics,” said Scott.

Alexei Abrahams, a research fellow at Citizen Lab who has been helping Jones collect data on the #TrudeauMustGo hashtag, adds that the spamming and manipulation of hashtags can create increased skepticism about what people read online, forcing people to retreat back to their personal biases.

“Absent of any clear way of seeing whether something is manipulated or not, people tend to go back to their home-spun values and it’s harder for them to be responsive to new information,” Abrahams told by phone from Toronto last week.

“You reach a place, when you’re exposed to so much misinformation, that you’re agnostic towards any sort of information. It ultimately leads to a sort of withdrawal from political life and from the activity of inquiring, because you just become frustrated and skeptical, then ultimately disenchanted.”

- Edited by Producer Phil Hahn and Senior Producer Mary Nersessian.

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